Political Dog Days, Part II 

How the aftermath of Sept. 11 squandered the world's goodwill in favor of a neo-con agenda

How the aftermath of Sept. 11 squandered the world's goodwill in favor of a neo-con agenda

As serious as the problems of the Bush economy have proved to be for all but the most affluent of Americans, they pale in comparison to the damage done by what has come to be called the Bush Doctrine, which now governs our conduct in the family of nations.

For the first 234 days of his presidency, George W. Bush appeared to be ambling along like a west Texas drifter, with no discernible destination and nothing much on his mind. He logged tens of thousands of air miles between Washington and Waco, and showed more enthusiasm for clearing brush on his ranch outside Crawford than charting a productive path for a nation still staggering from the 2000 election debacle. His job approval ratings hovered in the vicinity of 50 percent as people waited to see what policies he might be inclined to pursue (other than tax cuts, his agenda-topper).

Then came the 235th day—September 11, 2001—and in a little more than 100 minutes on that sunny autumn morning, everything changed so massively and so traumatically that the very date would become the name for a chain of horrific events that took place on that Pearl Harbor-like day of infamy. Not even the year is needed to bring to mind all the inflictions of terror and agony, and their indelible impact. September 11, or 9/11, says it all.

This is not the place and I am not the person to describe yet again the unspeakable horror of that day. Only the survivors of the 3,000 people who died, the tens of thousands who narrowly escaped, and the numberless heroes, sung and unsung, who ministered to the needs of others with no thought to their own safety can claim authority to tell the rest of us what a living hell 9/11 was, and is, and will remain. All the rest of us are in the lower ranks of the aggrieved. We were among the hundreds of millions worldwide who became unwitting onlookers via television to a diabolical and masterfully orchestrated sequence of suicide bombings unprecedented in their scale and shock. If there is anyone in this multitude of removed eyewitnesses to whom the rest of us might be expected to look in such a time of speechless confusion, grief, and rage, it would surely be the president of the United States.

The first fragmented details of the hijacking of four commercial airliners and the crash of one of them into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at 8:46 a.m. were communicated within five minutes directly to President Bush by one of his top aides as they were traveling by motorcade to an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, for his first appearance of the day. At 9:04 a.m.—one minute after another of the planes had struck the South Tower—the president walked into a classroom at Booker Elementary School to listen in on a reading lesson. (Some in his entourage saw this second explosion live on a television screen in another room of the school.) A minute or two later, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card approached the president and whispered to him that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center, and added: "America is under attack."

President Bush sat speechless, like a man in shock. His glazed eyes blinked slowly, as if his brain were trying to break through the frozen expression of puzzlement on his face. The only sound or movement in the room came from the children as they read in unison from their storybook. The minutes ticked agonizingly by. At length, the president began to make comments to the children, giving them encouragement and praise. His aides were pacing nervously at the back of the room, but he averted their gaze. Some seven or eight minutes into the reading, the students were stopped by their teacher, but Bush remained seated and lingered to chat and pose for photographs. Finally, at about 9:16, he made his way to the door and followed an aide into an adjacent classroom, where his staff had set up a temporary communications post.

At 9:30, the president read a terse statement to the press corps, saying, "Today we've had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack." Seven minutes later, as the presidential motorcade was racing to the Sarasota airport and Secret Service agents in Washington were whisking Vice President Dick Cheney from his White House office to a "safe location" underground, yet another of the hijacked planes exploded on impact into the Pentagon, just three miles west of the U. S. Capitol.

Air Force One took off from Sarasota at 10 a.m., flying north toward Washington, but 45 minutes into the flight it turned west after Vice President Cheney and the Secret Service advised Bush not to return to the White House while it was under high alert. The plane landed about an hour later at an air base in Louisiana, where Bush taped a short speech. By 1:30 p.m., they were airborne again, on a northward course to a Strategic Air Command base in Nebraska. There, it was finally decided that President Bush must address the nation on television from the Oval Office that evening.

His plane, escorted by fighter jets, landed at Andrews Air Base outside Washington at 6:34, having consumed most of the day on a circuitous return route to the nation's capital. All the while, the presidential brain trust weighed indecisively the various strategies for getting the president safely back where he belonged and where the American people needed to see him: at his desk and on the job.

At 8:30 p.m., Eastern Time—almost 12 hours after the hijacked planes began to fall—Mr. Bush made his first live public appearance of the day in front of the television cameras. "The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts," he said solemnly. "I've directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice." Neither his words nor his body language conveyed confident reassurance—that might have been too much to expect of any leader on such a catastrophic day—but the president did allude to a new and radically different approach to U.S. foreign policy when he said this: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Stated another way (as he was to do shortly): "If you're not with us, you're against us." And, again: "We will hit them before they can hit us." This claim of full authority to strike first against suspected enemies of America anywhere in the world would soon become the cornerstone of the Bush Doctrine.

The president made no mention of any prime suspects in his brief speech, but in late afternoon CNN had broadcast the name of one: Osama bin Laden, a self-exiled Saudi Arabian known widely in intelligence circles as the leader of a network of Islamic radicals called al Qaida ("the Base"). A month earlier, in his presidential daily briefing of August 6, 2001, Mr. Bush had received a memo titled, "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike Inside the U. S." During his last years in office, President Clinton also had found al Qaida to be implicated in a number of terrorist strikes overseas, but his authority was compromised by the impeachment drama then taking place, and he took no direct action.

In the last tense and draining hours of 9/11, bin Laden's name was the talk of government and media insiders in Washington and beyond. The ruling Taliban faction in Afghanistan, with whom the United States had collaborated previously, was now giving sanctuary to bin Laden and his followers. (Ironically, a warm friendship lubricated by a mutual interest in the oil business has long existed between the Bush family in Texas and the bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia. There were several bin Ladens among the scores of high-level Saudi nationals in the United States on 9/11; with the help of the White House, all of them were allowed to fly home safely in the days that followed, even though commercial air travel in and out of the country was at a standstill.)

Osama bin Laden was said to be estranged from his family but not from its wealth, which had helped to fuel several terrorist attacks by him and his followers against influences of "degenerate Western culture" in the Muslim world. His zeal for the most radical sort of fundamentalist Islamic extremism made him a polarizing figure among Arabs, feared and despised by many in the mainstream but adored at the fringes of religion, poverty, deprivation, and hopelessness.

As the enormity and cold-bloodedness of the terrorist attacks reverberated around the globe, a vast outpouring of sympathy and goodwill flowed back upon the United States and its people. Such solidarity was even more evident at home: the Stars and Stripes were everywhere in evidence, and Bush's job-performance and personal-approval ratings soared almost overnight from an even 50-50 to as much as 90 percent positive. At the National Cathedral in Washington on September 14, just three days after the attacks, he and four of his predecessors in the White House led "a national day of prayer and remembrance" designed to display the nation's unity and its resolve. The remarks delivered by President Bush were simple, direct, dramatic. Some commentators compared his words to famous utterances by Lincoln and Churchill (though in this instance the words had been crafted by Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson).

Later that day, at the disaster site in Manhattan, the president came face to face with some of the thousands of rescue workers from all across the nation who had rushed there to help. Many paused to listen as he stood among them in the rubble and carnage of the fallen towers. He seemed utterly transformed by the dramatic scene. A palpable sense of national solidarity was present there, born of a mixture of anguish, empathy, urgency, and outrage. When he shouted into a bullhorn his vow to bring the perpetrators to justice, the workers gave him a rousing cheer. In that moment, George Bush's familiar countenance of amiable bemusement seemed to have vanished into the dusty air; the fledgling president looked and acted like the man in charge. Suddenly, his rudderless administration had found a mission, a purpose (a "crusade," as he set out to call it, until his counselors told him the word was a better fit for his terrorist enemies and their "holy war.")

Looking back now, it seems fair to characterize those September 14 appearances and the speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress six days later as George W. Bush's finest hour. He was Rocky, up off the canvas and back in the fight, bound for glory as the crowd roared.

If we were watching an action movie about a patriotic hero who prevails against all the odds, this would be the place to bring up the martial music and roll the credits. But life is not so tidy in the real world, and choices are not so clear-cut, and nobody lives happily ever after.

In the three years since 9/11, Mr. Bush's performance as a national leader, as commander in chief, and as a self-described "war president" has all but obliterated those historic moments of unity and replaced them with a perpetual season of division and conflict, at home and around the globe. We have struck back blindly, with little positive effect on anyone's security but with horrendous consequences overall. America is now more isolated and more feared in the world community, and the threat of terrorism is greater than it has ever been.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush political team had great confidence in its strategy to assure the president's re-election three years hence. But now, in a scenario eerily reminiscent of his father's "can't miss" collapse in 1992, the son finds himself fighting for his political life—and if he loses, he could clip the radical right wing of the Republican Party in the process. With the election just eight weeks away, the Bush loyalists vacillate between trying to buy time and wanting to burn it. They need longer to prop up the interim government in Iraq and to coax a true recovery from the sickly economy—and yet, if they could, they would also love to vote tomorrow, before any more Americans die in action, and the oil pipelines are sabotaged yet again, and the memory of Bush's televised coronation at the Republican National Convention has faded from memory. In politics, where time is measured in election cycles, a week can seem like an hour or a lifetime, depending on circumstances—but regardless, four years is more like an eternity.♦

On October 7, 2001, the United States began aerial bombardment and missile attacks on suspected al Qaida targets in various parts of Afghanistan after President Bush had warned the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, to quit harboring terrorist factions or face invasion. The pursuit of Osama bin Laden intensified as U. S. and allied ground forces entered the country. On the home front, opposition to the war was muted as the vast majority of citizens expressed a desire for some level of retaliation after the 9/11 attack. Bush still had a job-approval rating of close to 90 percent in the polls, and both houses of Congress clearly sensed the public mood.

On September 14, the Senate had unanimously approved a resolution, introduced by Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle, giving the president blanket authority to use force against any nation or group responsible for the terrorist attacks or anyone giving aid and comfort to terrorists. Now, on October 26, the president signed a new law, the Patriot Act, passed by wide margins in the House and Senate, giving the attorney general sweeping and probably unconstitutional authority to pursue almost anyone and any material thought to be relevant in the vaguely defined war on terrorism. Many older citizens were made to recall the Big Brother repression and snooping of the Joe McCarthy era, but few people raised strong objections.

From their places of hiding, Mullah Omar and bin Laden were defiant. They called for a Muslim jihad, or holy war, against America and the West—and specifically against Christians and Jews. Widespread and at times heavy fighting continued until March of 2002, after which the war devolved into a sporadic conflict between shifting factions of resistance fighters and American forces.

For almost three years now, combat in Afghanistan has waxed and waned in an atmosphere of perpetual insecurity. Close to 18,000 American troops are based there, up from about 12,000 two years ago. Since the war began, almost 200 American and allied personnel have died. No public figures are available on the number of Afghani deaths, but informed estimates place the number (military and civilian fatalities combined) at approximately 12,000. The Taliban government has been terminated and an interim government is in place, with elections of permanent leaders scheduled for this October, shortly before the U. S. presidential election. Meanwhile, al Qaida appears to be as ruthless, as lethal, as large if not larger, and as invisible as ever. Mullah Omar remains a fugitive from justice, and as of this day—the third anniversary of 9/11—Osama bin Laden is still the world's most wanted criminal,

and a renegade hero to millions in the Arab underclass.

By the time of his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, President Bush and his foreign policy advisors were thinking more about their new global strategy than about the nagging complexities of internal power in Afghanistan. For the first time publicly, Mr. Bush began to flesh out the doctrine of pre-emptive aggression against nations or stateless groups deemed to be terrorist forces. He specifically named Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" against which the United States would take such action if it felt threatened. And the president aimed a special rebuke at Iraq, whose long-time dictator, Saddam Hussein, shared a mutual hatred with Bush's father, the first President Bush, because of the 1991 Gulf War.

In his presidential memoir, A World Transformed, the senior George Bush explained why he didn't pursue Saddam Hussein into Baghdad as that war wound down: "Trying to eliminate Saddam...would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq...there was no viable 'exit strategy' we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."

If the son ever read those words as an admonition from his father, he quickly forgot them or chose to ignore them. As the public has since learned, the second Bush administration's national security team was actively discussing the option of a new conflict with Iraq months before 9/11. In fact, the paper trail leads all the way back to the anticlimactic end of the 1991 war, when then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (now the vice president) and his chief defense planner, Paul Wolfowitz (now Donald Rumsfeld's deputy secretary in the defense department), first advanced the notion that U. S. military strategy in the aftermath of the Cold War should abandon "containment" in favor of aggressive "pre-emptive strikes" against non-democratic governments that had weapons of mass destruction and liked to throw their weight around. (Saddam Hussein's Iraq comes quickly to mind.) President George H. W. Bush raised this idea as a trial balloon, but it found almost no public favor.

Throughout the 1990s, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others kept the torch lit, refining their ideas within a neo-conservative cadre of hardliners who formalized their union in 1997 as the Project for the New American Century. Their aim was to produce, in their words, "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity," for the day when a right-wing president returned to the White House. In September 2000, the group released its 90-page report, "Rebuilding America's Defenses." By that time, George Bush the younger was trying to become that "next right-wing president," and the three global defense strategists advising his campaign were none other than Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. They would be joined in the Bush administration by two somewhat less ideological foreign policy specialists, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first Bush and Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice, a scholar who became the president's national security adviser. Powell was the only one of this group with any appreciable military experience in wartime.

Bill Clinton, during his presidential tenure, had had problems of his own with Saddam Hussein, even to the point of ordering a four-day bombardment of Iraqi military targets in late 1998. But Clinton was careful to consult with the United Nations and America's traditional allies on such matters, and no one in his administration thought seriously—not out loud, at least—about invasion and occupation.

From the day the younger Bush entered the White House, he was goaded by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz to look for a pretext to finish the fight with Saddam. By then, they and the nest of hawks at Defense and State—several of whom had collaborated with them on the "Rebuilding America's Defenses" document—were ready to rewrite the foreign policy principles that successive administrations had embraced since the end of World War II.

In 9/11, they had found their pretext. Here was a golden moment not only to change policy but also to put their bold new ideology into practice. In their view, Iraq could become a template for controlling and transforming the Middle East. The U. S. could quickly overwhelm Saddam Hussein's military, known from intelligence reports to be less well-equipped and prepared than in the 1991 war; after victory, the grateful Iraqi population would be loyal and supportive; Iraqi exiles in the West would democratize the country; America would have a permanent military presence there; and the Iraqi oil fields, second-largest reserves in the world, would pay for the entire venture.

All this low-hanging fruit was so tantalizing to the war hawks that they swooped in to grab it, using this twisted chain of logic: Al Qaida is a terrorist network; Afghanistan is harboring them, so we must invade Afghanistan; Iraq is also a terrorist regime, so there must be collusion between Iraq and al Qaida, two Arab peas in a terrorist pod; therefore, we must also invade Iraq, and get rid of Saddam before he attacks us.

Within a week after 9/11, Wolfowitz was pushing such action in the president's war council, but he had to yield to the majority view that Afghanistan must be dealt with first because public opinion demanded it. Wolfowitz still managed to plant the seed that would grow into the invasion of Iraq, however, when these words were inserted in President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001:"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Eitheryou are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorismwill be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

By that logic, Saudi Arabia was with the terrorists, because 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis; Pakistan was with the terrorists, because al Qaida fighters were hiding in its mountains on the Afghan border; Turkey was with the terrorists, because it didn't want its air bases used by U. S. planes in an invasion of Iraq; France, Germany, and Russia were with the terrorists, because they opposed unilateral U. S. action against Saddam's regime.

In his State of the Union message in January 2002, President Bush used his "axis of evil" list (a mere four nations out of a dozen or more that might fit the profile) to declare that the U.S. "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons." Six months later, in a speech at West Point, he called on all Americans "to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."

By then, Afghanistan had become an acrid purgatory roamed by lawless factions spoiling for battle with the Americans, with the newly evolving but inept Afghan government, or, all else failing, with each other. Osama bin Laden was still free and still menacing, moving at will among the rival warlord gangs in the high mountain passes bordering Pakistan. President Bush had vowed to "bring him in, dead or alive," but now, the press and the powers that be in Washington seemed almost to have forgotten about Osama, so seldom did they mention him.

As the steamy dog days of August 2002 dragged on past another September 11, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration's radical neo-conservatives were in complete control. On September 20, the White House released "The President's National Security Strategy," a periodic report to Congress required by law. The document read like a slight rewrite and edit of the private think tank-generated "Rebuilding America's Defenses" report of 2000. It should have; after all, both documents were created by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their cohorts, who were now taking the nation on a slow but relentless march to war in Iraq.

There was almost no one and nothing to block their path. On October 11, the U. S. House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a joint resolution authorizing the president to attack Iraq if it refused to give up its weapons of mass destruction, as demanded by the United Nations.

Among the senators voting for the resolution were Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Tom Daschle, the majority leader; the nay-sayers were led by aged constitutional scholar Robert Byrd of West Virginia and included Ted Kennedy, Bob Graham, Paul Wellstone, and a lone Republican, John Chafee of Rhode Island.

Bush was still pulling 65 percent approval ratings in the polls. His White House political guru and propaganda chief, Karl Rove, playing the midterm elections like a computer game of his own invention, conjured up a Bush mystique that the voters (a majority of the 37 percent who participated, anyway) clearly preferred. The Republicans came away with a surprise victory, not only retaining their majority in the House of Representatives but also taking over the Senate by a slim margin. Bush thus became the first Republican president since Eisenhower to control both houses.

Among the losing Democrats were several who vied for a shot at Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother and a key player in the 2000 butterfly ballot fiasco; Bush won re-election in a breeze. Also going down was Walter Mondale of Minnesota, the former senator and presidential candidate who agreed to be a last-minute stand-in for Senator Wellstone, the incumbent, who died in a plane crash.

And then there was Senator Max Cleland of Georgia. While serving in Vietnam in the 1960s, he won Bronze and Silver Stars—and lost an arm and both legs. He had voted for the resolution giving Bush a blank check to invade Iraq, but Karl Rove calculated that an arch-conservative could win in Georgia. The designated hit man was Saxby Chambliss, a country-club Republican with no record of military service. Chambliss ran TV ads questioning Cleland's patriotism for voting against some of the particulars of Bush's proposed homeland security legislation—and the GOP candidate got away with an eight-point victory. It would not be the last time that Rove would sully a war hero's record to help a rival who missed the action.

Three weeks after the election, the Homeland Security Act was passed and signed into law by Bush, who had stalled that Democratic initiative for several months before co-opting it and eventually taking credit for it. As his political and legislative victories piled up, the president turned the corner into 2003 wearing a self-assured air of entitlement and privilege. He had followed the lead of his counselors, Cheney and Rove and the others, and it had paid off handsomely.

He had cowed the Democrats, whipped the Republicans into line (as if they needed whipping), stonewalled the United Nations, and ignored the press. Now he was going to call Saddam's bluff, and the last few steps to "shock and awe" in Iraq were looking like a stroll in the park. None of the major powers except Britain would be joining him, nor would any of the Arab nations that helped his father drive Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991. But the U. S. would form a "coalition of the willing," Bush boasted—and if need be, we would go it alone, to save the world from the madman's stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and to cut the lifeline between Saddam and Osama bin Laden.

The final turning point came at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a masterfully persuasive case for Security Council support of a U.S. showdown with Iraq. The UN had passed a vague resolution the previous November, and

President Bush maintained that no further approval was needed, but he sent Powell to New York for the public-relations value of having him close the sale to the American public.

"The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world," Powell said forcefully. "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." He spread out before the delegates an avalanche of circumstantial evidence indicating that Iraq was hiding lethal weapons. When he had finished with his charts and photographs and his narrative, Powell packed his wares and headed home, confident that he had closed the deal, and the polls soon confirmed it; Bush's approval rating, though down considerably from post-9/11 levels, was still holding at close to 60 percent. As for the UN and "old Europe" (a dismissive line of Donald Rumsfeld's), and the rest of the world, their opinions really didn't count.

From then until the invasion was finally launched on March 19, 2003, there was no longer any doubt that it was going to happen. A small army of former U. S. officials, from presidents to cabinet officers and diplomats, from senators to generals and journalists, warned Bush of the consequences, but he rebuffed them. "The danger is too great," he insisted. "We're running out of patience, and they're running out of time. We can't keep on looking for a smoking gun. What if it turns out to be a mushroom cloud?"♦

Not until months later did the American public learn that there would be no mushroom clouds, because Iraq had no nuclear arsenal, no chemical or biological weapons, no air force, no navy, not even a well-trained and equipped army. Nor was there an elite and impenetrable Republican Guard encircling Baghdad to protect Saddam. (The only effective Republican guard was the one that patrolled the perimeter of the Oval Office under the command of Andrew Card and Karl Rove.)

In the fullness of time, there would be many more revelations that would challenge the motives and the integrity of the Bush administration.

The U. S. buildup to invasion took about three months. When Bush gave the green light, our nation had 150,000 uniformed personnel in the war theater, and our partners in the "coalition of the willing"—Britain and about 30 other countries—had another 20,000 total. Iraq was reported to have more manpower—a half-million regulars and another 650,000 reserves—but the U. S. had firepower to burn, from laser-guided bombs and rockets to high-tech armored goliaths that could flatten cars and houses.

By then, America's twin motives for starting a war—to seize and destroy Iraq's hidden weapons, and to expose and sever the ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden—were echoing repeatedly across the United States and around the world. There were assurances by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that U.S. troop strength was more than adequate to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously—"and on a third front, if necessary." His deputy Paul Wolfowitz predicted that revenue from Iraq's oil fields would, in effect, "pay for the war." Vice President Cheney, having said no one but Saddam could prevent the war, quietly assured his various audiences that it would be over quickly, that the human and financial cost would be minimal (except to Saddam and his Baathist Party), and that the Iraqi people would praise us for setting them free.

The Bush brigade dreamed of liberating Baghdad the way the Yanks liberated Paris 60 years ago, with grateful citizens standing ten-deep along the wide boulevards, music and cheering in the air, pretty women throwing flowers and kisses. In the first week of the war, Bush's popularity barometer jumped almost 15 points, to just under 75 percent. The toppling of a massive statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9 symbolized the fall of Baghdad.

On May 1—Day 44 of the war—President Bush donned a flight suit and

co-piloted a fighter jet onto the deck of an aircraft carrier positioned near San Diego. Beaming as he stood in front of a gigantic banner proclaiming MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, he told the ship's cheering crew (and TV camera crews conveniently summoned) that "the United States and our allies have prevailed." The commander-in-chief, who was posted to the Texas and Alabama national guards in the Vietnam War era, declared proudly that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." At that time, 138 American troops had been killed in Iraq.

Today, almost 18 months after the first bombs fell on Baghdad, a starkly different story is being written in the blood and tears of countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Americans, and others, and the end of this heartbreaking drama is nowhere in sight.

These are some of the facts and figures that cause shock and awe: More than 1,000 U. S. military personnel and 100-plus coalition soldiers have died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq; among the wounded are another 7,000 Americans, and more than 12,000 others have been "medically evacuated" for non-combat illness or injury. No one has given any official estimates of the Iraqi dead, but elaborate statistical models have yielded numbers exceeding 20,000 soldiers and civilians. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others who came to help in some way have been killed, injured, kidnapped—people in government and non-government agencies such as the UN and the Red Cross, employees of private contractors working on rebuilding the country, members of the media, security personnel, logistical service providers.

And more: The cost of the Iraq war so far exceeds $150 billion—not, as Wolfowitz speculated, being paid for with Iraqi oil revenues but by the American taxpayers. Added to that is the more than $60 billion expended to fight the war in Afghanistan to date. Some other costs can't be tabulated in any meaningful way. How, for example, could a price be determined for the ransacked and looted museums and libraries of Iraq, the ancient architecture destroyed, the archaeological sites of a 6,000-year-old culture blown to dust?

The MISSION ACCOMPLISHED photo-op now stands out as a turning point in this conflict, a shift from the modern exhibition of high-tech warfare conducted on American terms to a timeless guerrilla insurgency in which street fighters wearing civilian clothes and using a mixture of crude and sophisticated weapons are choosing which targets they will attack. When the war began, the principal opposition encountered by American ground forces came from men wearing the uniform of the Iraqi army. When that army collapsed and Saddam fled, tens of thousands of soldiers shed their uniforms, kept their weapons, and faded into the civilian population. Some of them welcomed the fall of Saddam and now want to see a law-abiding new Iraq emerge; others, for a variety of reasons, want to drive the Americans out, and these defenders, Sunni and Shiite and Kurd, in league with a motley assortment of teenagers, Islamic fanatics, and ad-hoc terrorists from other Muslim countries, now control large pockets of the country. But no one, on any side of the conflict, has the power or the plan to bring the chaos to an end.

When he talks about the war "on the ground" these days (and that's not often) Mr. Bush focuses mainly on the restoration last June of "limited sovereignty" to a temporary Iraqi government. A prime minister and other officials were put into office, a new constitution is being drafted, and free elections are scheduled for next year. The president also boasts on occasion that Saddam Hussein, "hiding like a rat," was pulled out of a hole in the ground last December, and has since been turned over to Iraqi authorities for trial and punishment. These are welcome and promising developments.

With his uncanny way of spinning negatives into positives, of remembering his achievements and forgetting his disasters (even to the point of saying, in reply to a reporter's question, that he couldn't think of a single mistake he had made since taking office), George Bush has

reimagined his role as a war president. To hear him tell it, he and his team of empire builders have "liberated 50 million people" in Iraq and Afghanistan and planted new democracies in the thirsty soil of terrorists and dictators, saying it was nothing but a simple choice, "between taking the word of a madman and defending the American people."

The true cost of such official self-delusion is terrible to contemplate, measured as it must be in lives lost, money spent, cultures devastated, old friends estranged, new enemies sworn. Now that we have expert evidence that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction and that there was no working connection between the Saddam government and al Qaida, what justification could there be for a president of the United States to have taken his country into a war of aggression?

The Iraq tragedy is the inevitable consequence of the Bush administration's dogmatic and belligerent "us or them" philosophy, which is directed not just at terrorists and suspected terrorists but also at once-supportive friends in the international community and even at patriotic Americans of any party or station—Senators John McCain, Max Cleland, and John Kerry, to name three—who dare to criticize the rhetoric and tactics and ideological extremism of Bush and his inner circle of policymakers.

The Bush regime appears to be in total denial of the heartbreak and hardship it has caused to the overextended men and women in our military services (reservists and national guard members in particular), their families and home communities. They are the ones who pay the ultimate price of war—and it is an unbearable sacrifice when the war is motivated by a thirst for political and ideological gain and set in motion by men who never fought in one, men who pass off atrocities such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal on "a few bad apples" at the bottom of the barrel, when the real perpetrators are somewhere in the vicinity of the Pentagon and the White House.

And there is one more shameful and outrageous measure of this administration's disrespect for those who fight for them: For every one of the thousand-plus fundraisers he has attended to collect $2,000 contributions to his re-election campaign from "the haves and have-mores," as he once described the wealthy donors who constitute "my base," President Bush has been AWOL from a thousand-plus military funerals. And still, on this somber anniversary of 9/11, polls show that half of the American electorate—the same percentage as three years ago—still thinks he is doing a good job as president.

But outside the seemingly solid wall of first-strike warriors throwing diplomacy to the winds and the hard-line zealots who cheer them on are three streams of opposition. One is the Democratic Party, which is pulling together as never before to combat the divide-and-conquer tactics of the administration. Another is the cohort of independent voters, joined now by new and returning participants in the electoral process, who sense the historic importance of this election and want regime change in Washington.

The third group brings together a disquieted minority of moderate Republicans who fear the Bush juggernaut almost as much as they fear the escalating terrorist threat. These Republicans see the deliberate and unintended consequences of our "wars of liberation," the reckless taunts against other countries, the go-it-alone disdain for some of our oldest allies. And from the far right, they recognize the party stalkers who are threatening to hunt down and eliminate RINOs (Republicans in name only) right after Bush is re-elected.

What will happen when these tributaries of opposition enter the channel that leads to the 2004 presidential election is anybody's guess. Will the Democrats stick together and turn out in record numbers? Will the independents and new voters bear to the left or right? Will the Republicans who don't support the ideological extremism of their incumbent leader have the courage of their convictions when they step behind the voting-booth curtain?

We can only worry, work, and wait to see, remembering that in the war at home, as in the wars overseas, George W. Bush is the man who would be king—and only the American voters can force him to abdicate the throne.

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